Fishing action is heating up all across Minnesota. Here are some fish and fishing locations that you’ll surely want to hit this month.
May is the epitome of spring in Minnesota! Angling opportunities for everything from spawning panfish to post-spawn walleyes and pike are abundant.
If the month of April pokes a pinhole in the dam that is Minnesota fishing, it is May that provides the dynamite charge that blows the whole thing wide open. The result is a torrent of fishing opportunities that can be found in everything from trickling streams to the vast expanses of our largest lakes.
Here are some locations and tactics that fairly ensure tight-line action this month.
While not necessarily a typical destination for traveling anglers, the entire southwestern corner of our state offers prime springtime fishing. I contacted an angler who is no stranger to fishing the shallow, bowl-shaped lakes that dot the region and picked his brain for angling advice. As the owner of Minnesota Fishing Guide Service, Josh Hagemeister depends on consistent fishing success to keep his clients happy and his business viable.
When asked of his go-to destinations for May action in the southwestern portion of our state, he didn’t hesitate with his answer. “Shetek and Sarah in Murray County are two of my favorites,” he said. “They really peak during May and June.”
Hagemeister then went on to explain that while Shetek and Sarah rank at the top of his list, the reality is that most of the lakes in the region are very similar. Consequently, anglers can hop lakes utilizing similar patterns with success.
“Most of the lakes are 7 to 10 feet deep. It’s definitely a challenge but if people want to learn how to catch shallow walleyes, they need to head to Southwestern Minnesota. Most people think walleyes are deepwater fish, but they (especially big fish) can be caught in shallow water. The depth of these lakes also offers unique shore angling opportunities. Every year, fishermen catch big walleyes and panfish without ever setting foot in a boat.”
Given the fact that the region isn’t as popular a fishing destination as the northern part of the state, Hagemeister says anglers should adjust their tactics. “Most fishermen want to use live bait at this time of year, but bait shops are few and far between. Because of this, a lot of them use crankbaits, which are probably the best option anyway because the lakes are so featureless.”
Without having stair-step dropoffs to work or much variance in bottom depths, anglers fishing crankbaits have the best opportunity to quickly ply the relatively small water column.
Due to the clearer water of spring, Hagemeister recommends crankbaits in natural colors. “Anything shad-looking is a good choice. Crawfish colors can produce, and anything that looks like a bullhead. Really, matching the natural forage is key.”
While the main focus in the southwest may be on walleyes, Hagemeister cautions against suffering too much from tunnel vision. “There is some great crappie fishing in a lot of these lakes. Some of them also have amazing jumbo perch fishing.”
What the southeast lacks in lakes, it makes up for in moving water. Having grown up in Olmstead County (one of four counties in the entire state that doesn’t feature a natural lake), I spent a fair amount of my formative years plying local streams and rivers for trout. As a youngster, I had no idea of the quality of fishing that surrounded me.
Today’s anglers who have set their sights on trout would do well to fish popular waters such as the middle branch of the Whitewater River or the middle branch of the Root River, both of which are located within easy driving distance of Rochester. No strangers to fishing pressure, both rivers can prove tough nuts to crack in May. Fortunately, a fair amount of the pressure associated with the traditional April opener will have died down, and increased insect hatches and warming waters will keep trout active. Also, with the mid-month walleye opener and turkey-hunting season in full swing, angling pressure will decrease at most popular trout destinations.
Trout anglers looking for the most action should try to deviate from common lures and flies, and should not be afraid to up-size their offerings. Fly-fishermen should give flies that mimic minnows like the Muddler Minnow, Clouser Deep Minnow, or Woolly Bugger a chance. Spin-fisherman should upgrade the size of their jerkbaits, spinners and twistertails to represent a larger meal.
Anglers often assign too high of a level of pickiness to trout, given their tendencies to feed on insects so tiny they wouldn’t even warrant a cough if accidentally inhaled. That causes most anglers to switch to diminutive offerings if the fishing proves difficult, but heading the opposite direction can be a better idea. Unconventionally large lures and flies are great for tricking trophy trout into striking, but also prove deadly on average-sized fish.
It’s important to note that trout streams are among the most heavily managed waters in our state; it’s a rare stream that doesn’t feature some sort of special regulations. Make sure to check all DNR regulations before wetting a line. Also, having a backup plan can make or break a fishing trip. Large rivers and streams can swell and muddy quickly following the all-too-common rainstorms of May. But smaller, more-protected streams should remain clearer. To develop a rock-solid backup plan, visit the Minnesota DNR Web site (www.dnr.state.mn.us/fishing/trout_streams/index) to view trout stream maps, identify public access points, and stay current on regulations.
If you were to imagine a band across the state that stretches from Detroit Lakes to Alexandria, then eastward covering St. Cloud, Brainerd and even Duluth, you would be thinking about the most popular destination for Minnesota anglers stricken with wanderlust. Central Minnesota is peppered with lakes and rivers that offer some of the best fishing in the state.
Because Josh Hagemeister bases his guiding service out of St. Cloud, he is very familiar with many of the lakes in the region. One of his favorite day or weekend trips is to load the boat, hit Interstate 94 and head west toward Alexandria in search of action with panfish and pike.
His favorite bodies of water represent a litany of small
, accessible lakes with quality angling opportunities. “I love Ida, but there is a lot of pressure. Some of the sleepers for northern pike and panfish are Erin and Moses. Big and Little Chippewa are awesome as well, plus the quality of walleyes coming out of those lakes is crazy.”
But, the biggest reason Hagemeister travels to Alexandria is for the panfishing. “I like Lake Louise, which is right in the heart of the town. Cowdry is another one of my favorites.”
Cowdry, which is connected through a channel to the popular Le Homme Dieu Chain, is also one of my personal favorites. I’ve made several trips to Alexandria over the years and while we’re never disappointed, it seems that time spent on Cowdry always top off the trip.
Panfish are an obvious draw but we focus on pike with rattling crankbaits and shallow largemouths on the opener. In addition to more desirable game fish, we can always count on bullheads, rock bass, perch and the occasional dogfish to keep the lines tight. While not highly sought after, those others can make or break a fishing trip, especially for anglers who have a dock or a boat filled with youngsters eager to watch their bobbers disappear.
For many anglers, the thought of batter-fried crappie fillets causes a glassed-over look in their eyes and they would do no better than to try out Lobster, which is one of Hagemeister’s favorites.
“That lake is full of little arms and bays,” he says. “You need a boat to get to them because there aren’t really any shore opportunities.”
The month of May offers a unique crappie-fishing experience for anglers in the know. “I’m a search and destroy guy. I don’t drop a line until I see a crappie, or more importantly, several crappies.”
Hagemeister relies on his polarized shades and electric motor to cruise likely spawning bays and locate shallow slabs. Once he’s got a few spots dialed in, he starts fishing.
“I like tiny Mepps spinners and small tube jigs, sometimes tipped with a crappie minnow. When I work an area I fan-cast until I narrow down exactly where the crappies are, and then I’ll break out the bobber and minnow rig.”
Hagemeister’s crappie tactics translate well to fit most central Minnesota lakes. One in particular is the ultra-popular Gull Lake Chain located North of Brainerd. While Gull receives a lot of fishing pressure, Hagemeister feels that overall the chain is still underfished.
“Gull is loaded with huge bluegills and crappies,” he said. “But the walleye fishing is exceptional too. You can drift sand flats, which is similar to fishing the north end of Mille Lacs. You can fish rocky shorelines. I’ve targeted fish on the opener in anywhere from shallower than 15 feet, all the way down to the 40-foot range. In May, especially on the opener, you really have to look around. It may take some time to dial them in.”
A few years ago I had the good fortune to live in the Brainerd area and I can understand where Hagemeister’s enthusiasm for the region stems from. Some of my all-time favorite lakes in the area, especially for panfish and pike — my guilty-pleasure fish — are Whipple, White Sand, Perch and Crow Wing. Plus, the pike and smallmouths that inhabit the Crow Wing River and Mississippi River are always eager to devour spinnerbaits, swimming jigs, and crankbaits. And they can offer a respite from the growing fishing and boating pressure of the popular lakes in the area.
Few places in the country fairly scream fishing opportunities as does northern Minnesota. Phil Krohn, the retail sales manager for the Fishing Department at the Cabela’s located in Rogers, makes it a point to head for big water in May.
“Walleyes are definitely my focus in May,” he says. “If I’m not on Mille Lacs, I head to Leech or Winnie (Winnibigoshish).”
While many anglers live and die by live bait, Krohn prefers to probe the depths with crankbaits and jerkbaits. “Trolling crankbaits is a great way to locate fish. I love Rapala Husky Jerks and Tail Dancers because of their action and the fact that they can be fished in the 6- to 8-foot range, which is where a lot of the walleyes will be at this time of year.”
Whether spending his time tracing depth contours along the main-lake points of Leech or concentrating on rocky structure on Winnibigoshish, Krohn opts for lure colors that closely match forage. “I stick to a few basic colors like perch, black and silver, or in some situations — fire tiger.”
When Krohn or one of his fishing partners hooks up, he quickly marks the spot on his GPS. Throughout the course of the day, enough waypoints will be marked to offer up clues to congregations of fish. In that case, Krohn will set up on the spot with live bait to see how many fish are really there.
While many anglers focus their attention on the bigger waters of the state, many more would do better heading to the Arrowhead region to explore the countless smaller lakes. Throughout my life I’ve been fortunate to fish many of these lakes in May, and they cough up more trophy-sized fish for me than do the lakes in any other region of the state.
This is due largely to the fact that the pressure is just so low. Bear Island, One Pine, Shagawa, and White Iron are just a few St. Louis County lakes that offer quality fishing for crappies, perch, sunfish, walleyes and pike. The dark, tannic water of most of these lakes combined with the low water temperatures of May often provide plenty of shallow-water action.
One lure that is highly underutilized in these conditions is the swimming jig. Weedless and tipped with a large grub, these lures can be steadily retrieved, jigged, or fished in a stop-and-go action. Swimming jigs are deadly on larger-than-average pike and they often pick up bonus walleyes, in part due to the fact that they allow fishermen to cover water steadily. White and chartreuse are great color choices, and the jigs readily entice both largemouth and smallmouth bass later in the month.
Because these are Canadian Shield lakes, they are full of prop-busting boulders, which may be hidden just below the surface and can be extremely hard to see even on sunny days. It’s important to take your time when navigating these lakes and to always err on the side of caution.
Fortunately, a busted prop doesn’t have to ruin a trip. Shore-angling opportunities for walleyes, crappies and pike exist on many of the lakes and rivers of the region. Adventurous anglers can find some amazing brook trout fishing as well in the smaller streams and beaver ponds that exist virtually untouched throughout the Superior National Forest.
The bodies of water covered here represent the tip of the tip of the iceberg that is May fishing in Minnesota. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of all of this is that while the popular destinations draw crowds, tactics effective on those bodies of water translate well to other lakes and rivers.
Whether searching for trophy-caliber fish, a stringer full of eaters, or just a nice break from the daily grind of office life, Minnesota’s May fishing will disappoint neither traveling anglers nor those sticking close to home.